It is said that in progression of society, change is the only constant factor, and everything else is a variable, including the agents for change. The recent decisions of the Honorable Supreme Court (SC) on 17 February and 17 March regarding grant of permanent commission(PC) to Women Officers (WO) are welcome judgements, seen as a landmark step towards women empowerment and corrective change to prevent perceived gender bias against women, with SC playing the role of the change agent. The concerns expressed by the government, on behalf of Indian Armed Forces, like physiology, motherhood and physical attributes did not hold ground under the basic tenet of constitutional entitlement to dignity, which attaches to every individual irrespective of gender, to fair and equal conditions of work and a level playing field. The ruling given with respect to the cases taken up with SC, is to be implemented in three months. These are welcomed societal changes and the military system has to gear up accordingly to mitigate the concerns yet ensuring that the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces is not compromised. The issue was extensively covered by the media, and the Armed Forces responded positively with Army Chief indicating that the roadmap for granting permanent commission to women officers being put in place and processes to start soon. The implementation, however, needs some serious analysis of some key issues to mitigate concerns.
Decoding the Alleged Gender Bias in Indian Armed Forces
A glance at the open source coverage of SC decisions, seemed to suggest that Indian Military had patriarchal mindset and SC has bettered the system with this landmark judgement. The background needs to be put in perspective. The women were first inducted as Military Nursing Officers in 1927, as Medical Officers from 1943 in British Indian Army as per organizational needs to look after troops, families and public during deployments, which included female population. Post-independence, the Induction of WOs into the Indian Army (IA) through Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) started in 1992, after the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, as per the needs of the organization. In February 2019 the Government granted permanent commission to women officers in eight streams of the Army, in addition to the JAG and AEC, to whom it was granted earlier in 2008. All these decisions were also pathbreaking, need driven, societal changes taken voluntarily by Indian Military and NOT by intervention of Courts; hence it may not be right to perceive that Indian Military carried patriarchal mindset and resisted such changes. It is a fact that there are different conditions of service for Women Officers (WO) and their men counterpart in most cases, so far. These conditions of service kept getting modified to address concerns of WO, starting from five years of service, changed to extendable by five years (5+5 years), followed by 5+5+4 and later made to 10+4 years, with little variation for few services and Indian Military has adopted accordingly. The fact is that WO are proud and essential members of Indian military and their entry was need based and not court driven.
The differences in conditions of service for Women Officers (WO) and their men counterparts can be perceived in favor as well as against them. No-one can deny that WO have concessions in physical standards during recruiting, in battle physical efficiency tests and are generally given softer appointments (as far as possible) with due considerations to hygiene, sensitivities and privacy issues while accommodating them. For selection they compete with female counterparts; hence selections of specified number of WO is assured, as they are not competing with men counterparts. The disadvantages of difference in service conditions was inadequate/unequal growth opportunity to WO, need for permanent commission and inadequate incentive, which are well known and have been the main reason for the redressal given by Honorable Supreme Court. The cases wherein male officers tenures in difficult field stations have got extended in adjusting WO for compassionate/spouse postings/ Child Care Leave, resulting reduction in time for male officers to be with family in peace locations, to attend to their family needs have not surfaced much, because male officers have not gone to courts against the resultant extra hardship caused in an attempt to help out WO by the organization. This gender bias against men officers also needs to be set right by gender equality. The need for ‘Gender Equality’ is the societal need of the hour and applies to both female as well as male officers and should be ensured in the spirit of the judgement.
Operational Efficiency and Command Assignments
To implement the latest rulings of SC on grant of permanent commission to all WOs, their terms of engagement will have to be revised. As per media reports the Indian Military is already working out models for it and I am sure that the system will settle down in due course, with some adjustments. The selection for command assignments have to merit based irrespective of gender, which must not be compromised to ensure operational efficiency of the Indian Armed Forces. Translating the same in the spirit of achieving gender equality, and SC judgement, the same standards have to be applied across the board, without any gender bias, throughout their carrier. It therefore implies that the same standards irrespective of gender, be applied for recruitment of officers, training, carrier courses and criteria command appointments. It entails same hardships be suffered by all officers and the same selection process be gone through for successive promotions, irrespective of the gender. which will make the competition tougher for WO.
To implement the same the selection for command be done through their confidential reports and promotion board, which should be closed promotion board, common for both genders and the names and gender of the profile is hidden from selection board. The profiles are then approved for promotions based on merit and capabilities and then decoded for names and gender later. The best officers should get the command irrespective of gender, as the troops respect competent leaders, who rough out inconvenient times with them. The cohesion of a military subunit is gained by officers and men being with each other in rough times. These are some basics of soldiering, which must not be violated to ensure operational efficiency. It means that the concessions given to WO in recruitment and softer tenures must be withdrawn, and they must go through field and rough appointments with troops, to be at par with male counterparts to be accepted as ‘Leaders’ and not ‘Appointed Officers’. Troops respect leaders irrespective of gender, but appointed officer has to prove to be a leader. It may be noted that amongst male officers in the existing system, only 30 to 50 percent get command assignments, and profiles avoiding harder appointments have lesser chances of being picked up for command. To implement SC decision the experiment of giving command to WO be done in a graduated manner commencing with the Services like Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, where women have been commissioned for the last three decades.
WO in Combat Arms
The fact that SC gave decision in March 2020, to induct WO in all types of warships in Indian Navy, as a natural process of societal evolution, the possible induction of WO into combat arms is going to be the next challenge, which Indian Military will be confronted with, in due course. The leadership in combat arms at each level from detachment to highest formation is laid on a bedrock principle of ‘Leading from the front’, which must not be compromised. It implies that all officers and soldiers must go through same selection, toughness schedule, promotion exams, command criteria assignments and appointments with no concessions. Honourable SC has also endorsed Suitability of the candidate as one of the criteria for such assignments in its ruling on March 17, 2020. Most foreign armies having WOs already have gender neutrality in physical standards or are working towards it. The concerns of physical attributes, physiology, minimal facilities for habitat, hygiene in combat ships, bunkers and long-range patrols, privacy needs, motherhood and childcare concerns are well known to WOs, as well as courts and public. The WOs who volunteer for combat arms with determination to overcome these concerns and are found suitable, at par with men counterparts, should be given the opportunity to take such choice. The only aspect which needs to be ensured is that the standards should not be lowered to adjust women officers, otherwise it will amount to compromising operational effectiveness of military for appeasement of few, at the cost of best talent available for national security. This will also violate gender equality principle.
The principle for selections in career progression should be the same as explained earlier for command assignments. It therefore implies that if every male infantry officer has to go through commando course, every WO opting for infantry must go through the same. If every other combat arm officer has to go through Commando/Counterinsurgency/Mountain warfare course and serve in Rashtriya Rifle or Assam Rifle for at least one tenure, the same yardstick must apply to WO. In Israeli Defence Forces which follow gender equality, only four percent of WO are in combat role and that too mostly employed for combat support task within the combat arm. Most armies avoid women getting involved in close combat with enemy, with due concern to their safety. It may be interesting to note that support services attract much more volunteers than combat arms, in view of greater stability of family, even amongst male officers also; hence the trend is unlikely to be different in case of WOs. United Nations, which has been pioneer in gender equality efforts, has peacekeepers from militaries having greater share of WO, have managed to get only 4.4 percent volunteer WO till 2019 as military peacekeepers against the target of 15.1 percent even when the UN peacekeeping field missions are less dangerous than counter terror operations, and financially more lucrative. We can accordingly draw inferences of choices of WO for hard combat duties, notwithstanding what appellant WOs have been saying in courts and media, however even if few WO want to opt for combat role overcoming the affiliated concerns, they must get equal opportunity.
Officers have to stay with their men on isolated posts on the Line of Control (LC) where there is a frequent threat of a raid. In high altitude posts the detachment may get cut off may be for six months in a year. IA cannot afford not to send WO/women on forward posts or CI areas after inducting them in combat arms. Such an implementation will be disastrous, lead to gender inequality and create a gender bias against male officers, stressing them with longer hard field sufferings and invite grievances from them. Some male doctors have faced such management problems in past. Honorable SC through its decisions of Feb and March 2020, has settled most aspirations of WO, made major strides towards gender equality, which the organization will take some time to absorb. The SC has also expressed consciousness of the limitations which issues of national security and policy impose on the judicial evolution of doctrine in matters relating to the Armed forces and specifically held the engagement of women in the Combat Arms, not in question in the appeal. SC also observed “Soldiers must have the physical capability to do one’s role. Women in the Army is an evolutionary process.” on February 17, 2020.
IA has started recruiting women WO and soldiers in Corps of Military Police, who can be employed in counter insurgency/terror operations on roles similar to women police, in dealing with population. Such an experience will help IA in making further decisions on this issue. To ensure gender equality if same standards are applied, IA may well face a situation of not many WO qualifying at the recruitment stage itself and start demanding quotas in recruitment and later in promotion, which must never be accepted, as it will amount to compromising operational efficiency of Indian Military, which is the “Instrument of last Resort” in terms of hard power of the nation. Interpreting the orders of SC, so long the level playing field is ensured in all aspects of gender equality throughout the service span from recruitment to retirement, the WOs volunteering for combat arms with determination to overcome all concerns, and found suitable at par with male counterparts, should be given the opportunity to take such a choice.
Major General S B Asthana
(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copy right). The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel sitehttps://asthanawrites.org/email email@example.comLinkedIn Profilewww.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6
Some of these views of mine have been expressed in various news portals and online journals, URLs of some of them are shared below